Matt Mitrione's got a mountain to climb this weekend at UFC 137 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
And it's not the Spring Mountain Range, but rather the mixed martial arts equivalent of the French Alps: a hulking 6'4," 235-pound powerful Parisian striker with more than a decade of fighting experience under his belt with the name Cheick Kongo.
It's a tall order for the undefeated (5-0) former professional National Football League (NFL) defensive lineman who at 33 made a relatively late transition to the sport after the curtain dropped on his gridiron career. In fact, Mitrione has only two years of training to his credit, and began learning the ropes just six months prior to his appearance on Spike TV's 'The Ultimate Fighter' (TUF) in 2009.
Despite winning five consecutive fights to kickoff his latest career endeavor, four of which he finished early, Mitrione is under no false illusions he is an unstoppable, infallible force.
"To be honest with you, I'm still very, very raw," he recently admitted to MMA Nation in a quick conversation. "I feel very, very green. I've been able to learn a little bit and pick up a little bit, but I'm nowhere near the experience level that most of these people are. A lot of people have wrestling backgrounds or they had seven to 10 amateur fights before they got into the pro game. There is still a tremendous amount I still need to learn. I still screw stuff up all the time, on a regular basis. But, that's one thing I have to accept. I can't put the cart before the horse, knowing that I'm still green and am going to make mistakes."
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has been kind to Mitrione thus far, bringing him along slowly and building his star power, as well as his confidence, by booking him against decent but not spectacular competition such as Christian Morecraft, Tim Hague, Joey Beltran and, of course, Kimbo Slice.
Mitrione has kept up his end of the bargain, winning each time he steps inside the Octagon. But, in the UFC, no good deed goes unpunished, which means from here on out his level of opposition will likely only get stiffer.
"I've been successful, but I also haven't fought the creme de la creme, either," Mitrione explained during the recent UFC 137 "Countdown" show on Spike TV. "This one coming up against Cheick will be, by far, my biggest test. I'm excited about it."
Indeed, Kongo is just the start of bigger and better bouts for Mitrione, especially if he can replicate his success to date at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on Saturday evening. And do it impressively, in the high-profile, co-featured fight of the night. Shane Carwin was in a similar position not too long ago, beating guys like Christian Wellisch and Neil Wain before being fed to Gabriel Gonzaga and Frank Mir.
That's a big leap in skill. A chasm between two peaks. One Carwin, who like Mitrione was a late MMA bloomer, was able to safely cross. However, the competition soon caught up with him in back-to-back losses to big cats like Brock Lesnar and Junior dos Santos.
"Yeah, it's a tough sport," Carwin explained in a recent interview with MMA Nation. "Right now you get thrown in there pretty fast. Even if you have a dozen or more fights, you're still trying to figure this sport out. By that time, if you're winning, you're probably already fighting elite guys. It's crazy."
The good news for Mitrione is that he isn't quite there yet. Kongo isn't a top 10-ranked fighter, according to the USA Today/MMA Nation Consensus Rankings, coming in at a very respectable number 13. However, keep in mind that's nothing to sneeze at, considering in the past three years Kongo has competed eight times, winning five of those contests.
His two losses during that span? UFC Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez and former division kingpin, Frank Mir.
Mitrione is standing on the precipice of a potential "breakthrough" performance with a solid effort against an extremely formidable and established foe. He may not be a spring chicken, either, in the grand scheme of things, but his mind and body appear to be in perfect alignment.
"I'm 33, but that doesn't mean anything to me," he said. "I'm a young 33. I'm young in this game. I work enough, and I'm in shape enough -- my body is in the best shape than it's ever been -- so I might be 33, but I might as well be 24 in my head."
Let's remember, too, Mitrione does have talent, as well as above average natural-born ability and agility that have served him well throughout his athletic career. While his fight skills might now still be raw, they can also be very effective when unleashed.
"I got a big punch. I got athleticism. I got very quick hands. I got shins. And I got a damn good chin," Mitrione said during the aforementioned "Countdown" show. "I'm a different fighter every time I go out there. I've got aggression and athleticism that Check might not have ever seen in his life."
Mitrione now just needs a mountain-like win over a mountain of a man at UFC 137. If he can, rest assured the contender or pretender debate will likely be settled shortly thereafter.